Film Review: Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny

Warm, familial and unhurried portrait of the great Austin auteur provides a good overview of an underappreciated director’s work and unusual approach.
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It almost seems wrong to use the word auteur when talking about Richard Linklater, especially after seeing this friendly and appreciative survey of his life’s work. As unique and idiosyncratic as Linklater’s body of work is, there remains a modesty to it that carries over into the person who appears onscreen. Unlike in many documentaries about great directors or other artists, co-directors Louis Black and Karen Bernstein hardly stand back in awe from their subject, they sidle right up next to the unassuming artist and simply ask him how he does it. “It’s a lot of hard work,” says the director of Slacker, Boyhood and other touchstones of the American independent film movement. “And people don’t want to hear that.”

Growing up in a small town in East Texas, what people in the area call “behind the pine curtain,” Linklater didn’t imagine himself becoming a filmmaker. Baseball was more his thing, though he imagined that there might be a future in writing. After knocking about in various jobs, Linklater developed a passion for film while on shore leave from the oil rig he found short-term work on. Following that, it seemed like a natural transition to take all the ideas he was forever jotting down in notebooks to the screen. Showing up in Austin, Texas, during the city’s pre-boom 1980s, when the college town’s slow pace and low cost of living allowed the bohemian ecosystem to flourish, Linklater talks rather nonchalantly about buying a camera, editing and sound equipment and starting to make movies just by, well, doing it.

His rambling debut from 1988, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, and first true feature, 1991’s Slacker, with its sinuously discursive and idea-thick rambles through empty Austin streets, grew out of both Austin’s rich creative background and Linklater’s surprisingly potent ambition. Fittingly, the documentary spends a good deal of time on Slacker, which not only established Linklater’s career but also hit the culture just at the zeitgeist-laden moment when worry and fascination over Generation X was roiling up in mainstream culture. Linklater acknowledges that were the exact same kind of film to come out now, he doubts it would get anywhere close to the kind of critical and commercial support that Slacker did.

After the high point of Slacker, the arc of Linklater’s career was not an unusual one for many indie auteurs of the time. Given Hollywood money to make a second film, Linklater produced what might have been the greatest work of his career, Dazed and Confused. But even though he thought he was making a mainstream film, the studio didn’t understand his drifting and plotless structure, and so essentially dumped it. Following that, Dream Is Destiny shifts to a more thematic instead of strictly chronological approach.

The nearly two-decade span of the Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight trilogy is dealt with generally as a single work of art. Stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke talk movingly about the level of input Linklater demanded in the crafting of those films, where high-flying romance and erudition were interwoven with bracing and sometimes grueling emotional insight. Still, Hawke notes that they acted as a kind of refuge for him, “where the light is always golden and you always have friends.”

As a survey, Dream Is Destiny feels somewhat incomplete, particularly when compared to the kitchen-sink approach of something like De Palma from earlier this year. Bits and pieces of Linklater’s twelve-years-in-the-making masterwork Boyhood are sprinkled throughout. But as with many reviews of the film, the angle here is again more on how it was made than how it turned out.

Elsewhere, short shrift is given to the thrillingly innovative animated films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly as well as his underappreciated Me and Orson Welles, in favor of more attention to his (justifiably) beloved mainstream comedy School of Rock. Kevin Smith, another member of that early-1990s indie-filmmaker crop, talks about being inspired by seeing Slacker. But otherwise, the film doesn’t do much to place Linklater in context with other filmmakers of his generation, except to point out how unusual his choice was to continue living in Austin, far from Hollywood.

Black and Bernstein, both veterans of that Texas filmmaking community which Linklater helped create, are fascinated throughout by Linklater’s process, which appears unusually collaborative for a director of his status. Actors like Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey attest to Linklater’s desire to not impose his vision but for performers to consider their characters in the context of the piece and generate their own ideas (a frustrating approach for a Hollywood veteran like Shirley MacLaine, who starred with Black in 2011’s black comedy Bernie).

That generosity of spirit is richly portrayed throughout the film, which makes clear that most actors and other collaborators would consider themselves delighted to be able to work with a Linklater. But more attention paid to Linklater the artist might have served this modestly scaled documentary better.

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